The Righteous Brothers began their song called Unchained Melody and, as the first words of the lyrics squeaked out of Fusner’s tiny radio speaker, life came to a stop for me. I just sat there and listened. It was a song about unrequited love, but I didn’t consciously think about it in terms of myself and my wife. To me, it was about life. My life right where I was. I needed love, any love, any demonstration of love and there was no love at all at the bottom of the loveless A Shau Valley, the bitter crease where the Bong Song ran. The heartless soulless valley where I hugged myself deeply into the mud and the sand of its abandoned flats.
Was the Gunny coming? I’d handed back the microphone to Fusner without knowing. My threat of dropping three thousand was an on-air threat. I’d been on the combat net not the artillery net. Even if Ripcord was listening in, which they probably were, they wouldn’t fire for an order given over the combat net unless there was some particular justifiable need. The Gunny knew that too. I’d never threatened, or even commanded the Gunny before, and I was unsure whether I’d done the right thing, or even a survivable thing. Saving Kilo, if that’s what we did, was as much about saving my scout team and myself as it was them. I lay face down. The Gunny would know all that, of course.
I waited for Brother John to come back with another song. Maybe God, using Brother John as a tool, would provide something, anything. The combat net frequency remained quiet. There was no after-action request by Ripcord for the 175 fire either. Nothing. The next song played. “When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we’ll see…” came out of the speaker. The song was a tune called Stand by Me. I tried to figure out if it was sent by God but the lyrics were about needing instead of about meeting needs.
The combat net crackled into life. Fusner moved to quiet his transistor radio but I waved at him, raising my face from the muck. He answered the Gunny’s call instead of turning the Armed Forces Radio Network off. Fusner immediately passed the microphone.
“What’s your plan?” I asked the Gunny without preamble, my mouth dry and my stomach a mass of dull pain from my fear and concern.
“I’ll bring a strike force down,” the Gunny said. “We don’t have a plan. You do the plan thing. The men seem to like that for whatever screwy reason. Sugar Daddy and Jurgens are coming with as many Marines as they have who’ll volunteer to swim that cursed river. The rest stay here to wait, however many of us come back. You can’t call artillery on the combat net and there was no enemy position three thousand meters downrange from your last either.”
The Gunny had missed nothing, of course. I didn’t know what to say. I’d trapped myself in a position where the only man I trusted I’d distrusted. The only man who’d cared about me when the chips were truly down on that first night, and through the following brutal day, I’d demonstrated a cold lack of care toward. That there’d been no choice had little or nothing to do with anything, I realized.
But I would not let my own company leave us out across the river to die, even if that might not have been their final decision. The Gunny had not missed that I was firmly in charge of supporting fires and that supporting fires worked without regard to whom they killed or what they destroyed. He’d be coming back down the river with less than half the company, which was considerably better than nobody coming at all. The fording of the river was dangerous, even though the current seemed to be moderating, in spite of the threat of more mist and rain. If Marines were lost in the crossing, then there would be a price and the Gunny was going to make sure it was all mine no matter how generous and caring he appeared to be about my survival.
I looked at the combat net handset but didn’t say anything further into it. The life and death chatter between Kilo and the battery at An Hoa would go on but I had other worries to concern me.
“Did you bring the air radio?” I asked Fusner, shoving the Prick 25 microphone back at him.
“Sir?” Fusner asked, without really asking at all.
His tone was more one of surprise at my having even asked the question rather than a question itself. He put the AN 323 handset gently in front of me on top of the congealing mud and then set to fiddling with the base instrument’s knobs.
“Turn off the radio,” I said, mounting the set to my head, and adjusting the little microphone in front of my lips. Somebody to Love was belting out of Fusner’s private radio but my time for reflecting on love, or the lack of it around me, was over. I hadn’t written a letter to my wife in two days, breaking a promise I’d made to myself while still aboard the airliner bringing me into the war. I had plenty of excuses for not writing but didn’t like the thought of accepting any of them. If I lost my only anchor back in the real world I was truly doomed.
“You up there somewhere Cowboy?” I asked, hitting the tiny transmit button of the AN 323 just before I talked. I waited for what seemed like minutes. The sounds of distance afternoon jungle floating across the rushing top of the fast-moving Bong Song water. The beauty of the lower valley could not be denied. That it hid so much pain, anger and awful predatory animals continued to amaze me.
“Roger that, Flash, headed on in to do a little heart surgery for Kilo,” Jacko said, the crackle from the background static telling me that the Skyraiders were still a long way off.
“I need a position check on Kilo when you got visibility,” I replied. “We’re going to do the welcome wagon thing, like back home.” I hoped there were no NVA soldiers or leaders well versed in the American neighborhood activities listening in, although the air radios seemed to have better security than the Prick 25s simply because they were more complicated to use. We were headed back down the valley. The enemy would figure that out soon enough, although I hoped their communication was a whole lot worse than our own.
“Time on target one five-oh, so stand by,” Jacko shot right back.
I handed the headset back to Fusner and turned to lay on my back. The Skyraiders would prep the area in fifteen minutes, probably taking another half an hour to orbit and truly saturate the nearby jungle and cliffs. There wasn’t much time left in the day to be taking a jaunt down the valley, back over the same ground we’d been hit so hard on before. If Kilo came down that steep slope like we had, however, before we got there, then they wouldn’t be as lucky as we’d been. That they’d come down right where we had was not really in doubt. There really was nowhere else. The NVA obviously had tunnels running through the areas of high ground. They’d come at us and Kilo earlier up on the high ground like a herd of multiplying rabbits. With Kilo’s possible intent in mind and the NVA previous experience with my company, they’d be driving all out to force Kilo into the trap at the bottom. Kilo had no choice about coming down and we had no choice but to try to save them either.
In what seemed like no time the sound of the Skyraiders could be heard far up the valley, making their approach. In seconds, the two giant big birds came screaming down the river, following each twist and turn of its brown roiling waters. I wasn’t sure I was as happy to watch them proceed down the valley as I would have been if they’d orbited to stay and protect our own position, our own move, and the coming river crossing elements of my company were about to make.
“Approaching,” Fusner stated, matter-of-factly, as if the one word explained anything and everything.
“The Gunny?” I asked although I knew Fusner couldn’t be hugging the radio close and listening to anybody else likely to announce their approaching presence on the right frequency of the combat net.
The late day heat had built up again to the point where my utilities stuck to me at every joint. There was a mist higher up in the air but it didn’t fall all the way to the earth. It made things horribly moist and diminished the light and visibility without lowering the heat at all. My open leech wounds hurt like hell, but there was nothing to be done for them. One of the corpsmen might have something to put on them but first, we had to get a corpsman across the Bong Song with his stuff. Plastic sheets were not a regular part of resupply, so the condition of whatever they got across with was something to be considered, as well.
The sound of the Skyraiders delivering ordnance further down the valley lifted my spirits. I turned over on my stomach to study the hill across the river that had plagued us with enemy fire, time after time. We’d dumped the world on top of that hill, but still, the NVA kept coming back.
I heard the approach of the company without at first knowing it was them coming. It was the sound of the Ontos. They’d resupplied and were either bringing the Ontos down river or the NVA had somehow gotten hold of another Soviet tank and we were about to become smaller bits of ourselves. I looked over at Fusner, but his attention was drawn to the same point upriver as was Stevens’, Zippo’s and Nguyen’s. We lay and stared across our shallow berm of sand and mud, not blinking and barely breathing, as the clicking thud, thud, thud, of a tracked vehicle made its way along behind the brush blocking our view past the bank on the other side of the river.
The brush cleared near where the burned out hulk of Tex’s truck sat, and about a hundred meters of open flat and former river bed lay bare between the rushing water and the jungle’s edge. The area was open and without cover or concealment from the hill for several hundred meters, extending downriver until it disappeared and became the base of the enemy occupied hill.
To my great relief the Ontos came into view. It was horridly ugly but beautiful to behold. The 106 recoilless rounds had to have been flown in on the resupply or the Gunny would not have brought the thing. I could tell it was the perfect weapon for what might be needed. The Ontos could sit back with all six barrels aimed at the hill, with the .50 caliber spotting guns ready to send a tracer round into the smallest hot spot that might light up along its flank.
“Jesus Christ,” Stevens breathed out in a whisper.
I could only stare, not at the Ontos but the rest of the show.
The company appeared, in platoon formation, with the Gunny literally marching at the front. It was an impossible scene. The risk was immense, if the enemy opened up on the massed Marines moving in three squads. And they marched on, not in cadence, but as straight-standing and walking Marines. They came on, one platoon after another. It was the whole company. I saw Jurgens and Sugar Daddy leading their respective platoons. I’d never seen the whole company together as a unit before and wondered if I would ever see them like that again.
As the last Marines became visible on the open area the entire company seemed to fall apart. Some Marines went down to the earth on knees and bellies while others trotted toward the bridge, the jungle line, while some moved to the far bank and began setting up machine guns to cover the hill from the slight sloping protection the bank allowed for.
The Ontos shut down, but the turret turned slightly to aim the tubes toward the hill. The whine of the electric motor driving the turret was loudly distinctive, and as threatening as hearing the action of a twelve-gauge pump action shotgun.
I heard the Gunny’s voice come out of the Prick 25 speaker.
“You boys waiting for the fun to begin over there Flash?” he asked.
The Gunny had never referred to me as Flash before, like the air guys did. I didn’t know whether he was throwing me a bone, as gesture of peace, or upping the ante about the fact that I’d threatened him and the company with the 175 fire.
“You brought everyone,” I blurted into the handset Fusner held out for me.
“As ordered, Flash,” the Gunny replied. “The other guys were lonely and didn’t want to miss the fun of participating in your new plan. You do have a new plan, do you not?”
I was dumbstruck. I didn’t know what to believe. The Gunny’s tone was strange. Derisive but also following along, almost like he was talking partially to a spoiled child and partially a real commanding officer. The company would do what the Gunny told them to do but he was saying they’d made the decision on their own, when he wasn’t inferring without saying it that they were coming because I’d ordered it.
Zippo poked me and I turned slightly to look at him. He held his right index finger up to his lips. I looked down and made sure the transmit button on the handset wasn’t pushed. I nodded at him, my expression one of frowning question.
“The plan,” Zippo whispered, as if anyone could hear us at such a distance and across the rushing waters of a still fast-moving river. “You gotta give them the plan. It’s important.”
I looked Zippo in the eyes, about to argue with him or put him in his place but then I read the look of need in his eyes. He was waiting for my response like a child. He’d been about to die, but there was now hope in his life. He needed a plan. Any plan. A plan to keep him alive so he could ride with whatever good fortune had just arrived on the far side of the river.
I turned back to face across the water. The company was setting in like a Marine company in training. The men worked fast, digging, emplacing, watching, and not talking at all. The company was acting like a real Marine company for the first time, or at least for the first time I could actually witness. It was impressive, and I felt some of Zippo’s hope seep into me.
“Camp Town Races,” I transmitted to the Gunny.
“Say again?” the Gunny asked, obviously not understanding the phrase.
“Like the kid’s song,” I said, with a note of annoyance in my tone. “Camp Town Races sing this song, do dah, do dah…Camp Town Races all night long…” I said, mangling the badly remembered lyrics.
“Goin to run all day, going to run all night, Camp Town Races all night long all the do dah day, yes sir,” Zippo sang. “I know that one. We’re going to run down there, save Kilo and then run right back.”
I wanted to say “yeah, well, sort of…” but didn’t answer.
“Great,” the Gunny replied over the radio, not sounding like it was a great name for the plan at all. “I suppose you’re going to tell me all the details when we get across, if we get across?”
“Look over there,” Stevens said, his voice barely audible.
I checked out the set-in positions of the company Marines across the river.
They were formed in layered perimeters with two M-60s covering the upriver direction they’d come down from, two covering our positions across the river and the rest set up with bipods to cover the troublesome hill.
It took a few seconds more for me to comprehend why Stevens had directed my attention across the river. Several of the Marines were raising thumbs into the air.
That was it.
“They like the plan,” Stevens said, smiling only the second smile I’d ever seen crease his lips.
“They don’t even know the plan,” I said more to myself than the men around me. I didn’t really know the plan, but my mind was going into overdrive trying to come up with something. At least it was before the enemy opened up again.
The fire didn’t come from the still steaming top of the hill where the 175s had come in so hard and close together. The fire came from lower down on the flank. Instead of being directed toward the company position the fire was, for some reason, directed at our own position across the river. There was no place to go. All I could do, along with my team following suit, was try to press deeper into the semi-hardened surface of the sandy mud behind the berm that provided a lot more concealment than it did actual cover. Bullets impacted everywhere, with the ones hitting the cliff wall behind us giving off a resounding series of deep thuds, as the muddy wall absorbed them.
I heard the Ontos. Not the tracks or the diesel. I heard the semi-automatic fire of the .50 caliber spotting rifles. The sharp cracks were much louder than the AK-47 stuff. A single long but huge explosion took place, followed by sharper and bigger explosions against the side of the hill. The Ontos had fired a number of rounds. The enemy fire was gone. I looked over the top edge of the berm. Four Marines scrambled to reload more long rounds into the backs of the six tubes mounted out to the sides of the Ontos turret. In seconds they were done, and the loud electric whine of the moving turret could be heard again. I looked over to the enemy position. Part of the hillside was on fire. The Ontos was devastating in that it could deliver direct placement of high explosives to the exact place where incoming rounds were being fired out of.
“You boys okay over there,” came out of Fusner’s radio. It was the Gunny.
“Roger that,” I keyed the transmit and answered the Gunny using air slang.
“Some reason you came in like the Marine Corps at Eighth and “I” on parade?” I asked, wondering what had been in the Gunny’s mind to take the risk he had.
“Every once and a while it’s good to let them know what they’re up against, and every once and awhile it’s good to let our Marines know what it’s like to be a Marine outfit again.”
I wondered if the grandstanding was worth the risk but I wasn’t going to complain. The company was all there, and the half of them or more who stayed behind would be in a lot better position to welcome us back upon our return. There had been a long shallow flat area where the river spread out further across both sides of the valley when we’d made our own descent from the highlands. It was likely our part of the company could cross down valley, and then return on the east side of the river without having to somehow deal with the mess of a bridge and the killing river current. The company being situated where it was meant that when we returned we’d have covering fire while we worked along and by the side of the hill.
“How do we get across?” the Gunny asked.
I knew he had to be staring at the end of the bridge, with its end far too distant from our side of the bank to jump over or even stretch some logs or planks across if we had any. The water looked more intimidating than it was, unless another alligator or some poisonous snakes showed up, but it was still waiting to drown any Marine who couldn’t swim or navigate through it somehow.
“Easy,” I transmitted. “You go to the end of the bridge and jump in. Seconds later the river’s going to spit you out right in the middle of that curve where Tex and Jones are waiting. The water’s moving so fast you don’t make it past the curve going downriver.”
I waited with the combat net handset dangling. I knew it would take a while. Selling the river crossing would not be easy, until a few of the more courageous of our Marines made it. I knew it was highly possible that not all the men would make it but I had no backup plan and there was no way to reach somebody if they didn’t get out at the curve, and headed downriver.
“Camp Town Races,” the Gunny said, coming back to the radio. “God dammit, this better work. The only way is for me to come over first.”
I would have smiled if I could smile. The Gunny was going to have to prove the river crossing part of the plan would work to the men. After that, the only plan I had was to run down the river bank and assault the rear of the NVA position. I knew had to be set up to take out the ambush set for them before Kilo was fully committed in coming down the side of the cliff. How good and how quick was the enemy intelligence system? I didn’t know. Their leaders had obviously been afraid the company would come back and attack down the other side of the river. Would our crossing over and leaving the heaviest elements of the unit behind fool them? Another unknown. Either way, our move downriver was going to put their ambush element in a bad position. Either they got the hell out of there before we arrived or they would be in the middle of a crushing crossfire. Kilo would be using plunging fire to hit them from up top while we would be hitting them in the back, down and dirty.
The company began to strip down for the attempt, the Marines carefully leaving heavy packs and unnecessary equipment behind. The requirements of the plan were all in its title. It would be a race. Guns, ammo water and not much more would be all that was required. Getting those three things to land on the bank after the plunge into the fast moving depths of the Bong Song was another matter entirely. I saw Nguyen motion to Stevens, as the Gunny led the first contingent out onto the bridge.
Stevens crawled over to me.
“Throw them, Nguyen says,” Stevens indicated, pointing across the water.
“Throw what?” I asked, perplexed.
“Throw the weapons and other stuff,” Stevens said. “The distance isn’t that great. Too much for a man, but not really that far for tossing equipment. We’ll be there to catch the M-16s and stuff. Even if they land on the bank the mud’s pretty soft.”
I wondered why such a simple solution had never even occurred to me. The guns would not be along to drag the men down, or the ammo or canteens either. I didn’t need the radio. Fusner transmitted the idea. I watched the result all along the bridge’s surface. The men were moving their stuff to the front to be thrown across the intervening distance.
The Gunny leaped into the water. I watched him surface immediately five yards down from the end of the bridge. The water was moving subtly faster than it looked. Seconds later the Gunny clambered out onto the ‘beach’ area where the bodies of Tex and Jones lay. My eyes lingered on the bodies. There was nothing to be done about them. The bodies would have to remain where they lay until we came back from saving Kilo company, which meant they would be there exposed for another night.
One after another, the men handed their gear to one very large Marine stationed at the very end of the bridge. He did all the tossing. Zippo, Stevens and Nguyen caught the airborne gear. I didn’t see one piece hit the mud. The Marines jumped, came up just like the Gunny had, floated for a few seconds, and then waded up from the water in the middle of the life-saving curve. There were no hitches or lost men. I counted sixty-eight Marines plus Sugar Daddy and Jurgens. My issues with Jurgens were going to have to wait. Again. The Gunny moved up toward where Zippo, Stevens and Nguyen were catching the stuff to recover his gear. He hauled his water-soaked mess of utilities up to my position, settling behind the berm on the sandy mud next to me.
“Clever way to save your own ass, Junior,” he said, twisting and squeezing what he could from his utility blouse before putting it back on. “I can’t think of one damned thing Kilo has done for us, and this is the second time we’re gonna lose Marines to save their academy asses.”
I was back to being Junior, which suited me fine. Trying to work with the Gunny was like trying to conduct operations using one of those black fortune-telling spheres of my youth. I remembered some of the answers. “Don’t count on it,” “without a doubt,” and probably the most applicable one for the Gunny, “ask again later.” But he’d come, and with the whole company and the Ontos. As usual, in spite of appearances and commentary, the Gunny had come through again. I would have said something about only the Kilo commanding officer being an academy graduate but I knew the Gunny knew that and was only using the exaggeration for dramatic effect.
“You want to outline this Camp Town Races bullshit, or was that another title you invented just for its entertainment value?”
The enemy opened up again. The Gunny and I tried to bury ourselves in the mud. The incoming fire was almost a relief. I had to come up with some sort of rational sounding plan. The Gunny wasn’t someone who was going to do anything based upon bullshit, if he knew it was bullshit. The Ontos fired again almost immediately. And then the Skyraiders were there, lumbering back up the valley low and menacing. The enemy fire died out and did not return, as the Skyraiders orbited and the Ontos was again reloaded.
If I could sell the Gunny on my non-existent plan, we all might have a chance of living into the coming night.